Touring Civil War Battlefields With Ta-Nehisi Coates

I am just about finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, which is essentially an extended letter to his son, Samori. It’s incredibly powerful. Coates reveals a world – from the violence of the streets of Baltimore to police brutality – that I will never fully understand. What I truly value in his writing, however, is the way he weaves the past into his observations about his own childhood and the current racial environment. At times the present and the past are indistinguishable in his hands.

While I was hoping for a bit more on the Civil War and memory what Coates does offer is incredibly thought provoking. Here he describes visiting the battlefields of Petersburg and Gettysburg, which caught my attention when he first wrote about it at the Atlantic a few years ago.

I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg Battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the gray wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking maneuvers, hardtack, smoothbore rifles, grapeshot, and ironclads, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshaled to achieve. You were only ten years old. But even then I knew that I must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, what it always was….

Do you remember standing with me and your mother, during one of our visits to Gettysburg, outside the home of Abraham Brian? We were with a young man who’d educated himself on the history of black people in Gettysburg. He explained that Brian Farm was the far end of the line that was charged by George Pickett on the final day of Gettysburg. He told us that Brian was a black man, that Gettysburg was home to a free black community, that Brian and his family fled their home for fear of losing their bodies to the advancing army of enslavement, led by the honored and holy Confederate general Robert E. Lee, whose army was then stealing black people from themselves and selling them south. George Pickett and his troops were repulsed by the Union Army. Standing there, a century and a half later, I though of one of Faulkner’s characters famously recalling how this failure tantalized the minds of all “Southern” boys–“It’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun….” All Faulkner’s Southern boys were white. But I, standing on the farm of a black man who fled with his family to stay free of the South, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright–the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body. That is all of what was “in the balance,” the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core.

Discuss.

11 thoughts on “Touring Civil War Battlefields With Ta-Nehisi Coates

  1. Ryan A

    I think the Brian farm is a fantastic study because we have a lot of events occurring and seeming to converge on this one spot. A former slave from Maryland moves to Gettysburg, starts a family and a farm, leaves when the invasion comes near, and his home becomes the center of the Union line, defending against Confederates aimed at maintaining that slave system in a climatic charge/repulse. Kind of poetic in a way.

    I guess I don’t understand the first paragraph though, when he talks about the uniformed Confederate soldier. I’m assuming this trip was relatively recent, meaning that living historian was sanctioned by the NPS as an interpreter and not just some random dude who wanted to play dress up on a visit. Was he criticizing the fact that the guy was there in uniform trying to tell the story? If any place would be appropriate for such a demonstration, I would think it would be at a battlefield like that as part of a living history.

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  2. Patrick Jennings

    Coates’ article ends with a remarkable idea,

    “The Civil War confers on us the most terrible burden of all—the burden of moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.”

    Herein is the true epicenter of that particular war. Wars rarely end when weapons are laid down. WWI was fought well past 1945 and in some ways continues on in the Middle East. The Korean War is being waged to this very day along the DMZ. Just last week the US government announced the start of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam Conflict…the same week a Minister from Vietnam visited the White House. The rumblings of that war might soon settle into the cool harmony of open trade relations and Cold War relations are warming in places like Cuba. But our own Civil War still remains an aching scar to so many people.

    I think Coates has hit on a brilliant point. I hope others take him up on his challenge.

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  3. M.D. Blough

    Gettysburg and the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg represents a perfect place and situation for expanded interpretation of the War of the Rebellion. In the first place, it’s one of the very rare Civil War battles that took place in an inhabited town with most of the residents, especially women and children, present. (In Fredericksburg, for instance, Robert E. Lee made it clear to the citizens, well before the battle that the ANV had no intention of trying to defend the town and many civilians took the opportunity to evacuate). In the second place, it presents an extraordinary opportunity to distinguish between the experiences of white civilians and black civilians (in the case of black civilians, whether or not they had fled from being enslaved or were free men and women by birth) in their expectations and the reality of the dangers they faced from the ANV, which was acting as a slave-catching patrol. Finally, Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, especially what was meant by “A new birth of freedom”.

    Nevertheless, when expanded interpretation was first broached at Gettysburg, you’d have thought it was the end of the world. For the best part of a century, more or less, a bandage of the Lost Cause and a literally whitewashed interpretation of the even the Union part of the War of the Rebellion covered over the deep, unhealed wounds that getting into the Why and not just the Who Shot Whom and Where opened up.

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  4. Annette Jackson

    I no longer have hope for any understanding or reconciliation after Saturday’s flag run where the drivers of a parade of cliche pickup trucks flying battle flags decided to drive through downtown Petersburg…I am a strong 1st Amendment person, but just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          What you need to keep in mind is that public institutions and local government are taking action because of just this kind of behavior. It will only lead to more flag removals. They are digging their own graves.

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    1. James Harrigan

      Don’t despair, Annette. As Kevin said, the racist idiots who took part in that drive, along with the racist idiots who greeted President Obama with a display of Confederate flags today in Oklahoma, are out in force right now because they are losing. Hold them in contempt, sure, but try not to let them get to you.

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  5. Msb

    Thanks for this opportunity, Kevin. I can’t want to read this book. Coates expresses some of the thoughts I’ve had (but better than I Can). Especially that many of us, looking back, can afford to focus on the equipment or tactics, or, like Faulkner, can find the War romantic or grand. All Coates can see in the Confederates is people who were trying to steal African Americans from themselves. Sums it up nicely for me, too.

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